|Warfare Home History Glossary Guides Publishers Artists Techniques Topicals Blog Contact|
Weapons of World War One:
By 1914 motor vehicles could be found all over Europe but they were still largely the toys of the well to do. Their production was relatively small, which hampered their inclusion for military use during the Great War. Many manufacturers would switch production over to suppling trucks but it took some time for them to appear in numbers. While they proved to be very useful, it was not always easy to attain all the gasoline that truck convoys consumed. This was especially true in Germany under the blockade, which suffered from shortages in rubber for tires as well. Even so motorized vehicles became increasingly important for military use as the supply of horses dwindled. In general, one horse was needed to supply every three soldiers in the field.
Tractors were also used to pull land trains, a string of carriages that traversed roads rather than tracks. While they were not confined to rails, difficulty in controlling them limited their length and they could not carry nearly as much weight at a real train. Even when equipped with steel wheels as on the German postcard above, they couldn’t veer off roads and enter rough terrain. These trains were usually used to transport men and equipment short distances as from a rail head to a forward supply depot. They could not get too close to the front lines because their slow speed made them easy prey for enemy artillery.
Steam wagons (Motor Lorry), a tractor-like vehicle with a holding bin in the rear, became popular in Great Britain in the 1890’s. While there numbers would be surpassed by combustion engine trucks, many designs were still in use by World War One. Nearly all production during the war years was procured by the military. Their steel wheels allowed them to cross rougher terrain neat the front but they still had severe limitations. It is rare to find these vehicles on postcards despite their novelty.
The first notable appearance of trucks was in early 1916 during the campaign for Verdun. With the city’s rail lines cut off by the Germans, the use of trucks became crucial in helping supply the embattled French army. Three-Thousand trucks were employed here on a daily basis that ran down a single small road. This feat became legend and the road came to be known as the Sacred Path (Voie Sacrée). A number of postcards were made to capture this activity.
As valuable as trucks were in transporting men and supplies, their worth was always in proportion to the terrain they had to traverse. Some areas of Europe were not only flat, they had a good network of roads that were surfaced in some manner to make them more weather resistant. This was the exception rather than the rule for motorized vehicles were not yet popular enough to warrant a major investment in road building. Trucks were often used in places totally unsuited for their operation out of military necessity, but this caused them to be used up quickly. Drivers who operated trucks under such conditions, especially in mountainous terrain, often risked their lives in doing so.
Before the First World War automobiles and trucks were not plentiful but there were still hundreds of manufacturers producing them. While many of these firms contributed to the war effort, they produced such a wide array of vehicles that it became very difficult to supply the replacement parts needed if they broke down. This was already seen as an obvious problem when the United States entered the War in 1917. To help avoid problems with their supply lines, the standardized Liberty Truck accompanied the American Expeditionary Force to France. Not only could spare parts be easily stockpiled, they were sure to work and damaged trucks could be cannibalized for parts.
Even though hundreds of thousands of trucks were produced for military use during the Great War, they were still unique enough to attract attention. Many real photo cards exist, especially of American soldiers posing with their trucks. The use of trucks as a backdrop may go beyond their unusual presence; those posing with them probably took pride in their modern equipment.
The public was still getting acclimated to a world that included automobiles when the Great War began. Already a common sight in cities, many in rural areas only made a passing acquaintance with autos. For the most part, autos were derided rather than praised on numerous postcards before the War. They were seen as noisy, dirty, and their drivers portrayed as reckless. All this was not far from the truth. Motor vehicles became more of a common sight as the military necessity for them grew; and their numbers on theWestern Front increased dramatically when America entered the War. Inexperienced drivers performed their duties where the War took them, and suddenly communities that barely ever saw motor traffic were now full of speeding vehicles. This clash of cultures led to a high death rate among farm animals and civilians, which caused much resentment toward Americans. General Pershing calmed this situation by paying out cash settlements for damage done in non-combat situations. This was the first time any government appropriated funds to compensate civilians in war.
The thick armor on tanks provided their crews with protection against enemy fire, but it also gave these vehicles great weight. This not only meant that they needed to consume large quantities of fuel that was hard to keep in supply, this strained their engines and were notorious for breaking down, so they needed to conserve all the millage they could for the battlefield. Their tracks also had the ability to further damage well worn roads. The solutions to this was to transport tanks by other means whenever possible, which usually meant loading them onto flatcars so they could be moved by rail. A less common form of transport was by truck. Few cards seem to capture the transport of tanks, perhaps because this does not fit into the popular conception of them as a mighty war machine.
Various private motor vehicles were appropriated during the War to serve military purposes, and sometimes they were unique enough to catch notice. Perhaps the best known are double decker buses ferried over to Belgium from the streets of London. The Royal Navy sent over the first seventy-five to help with the defense of Antwerp in 1914. After the city’s fall, over a thousand were put into service shuttling troops and ammunition from Dunkirk to the front line in Flanders, and then returning with the wounded. They sometimes delivered men into pitch battles during emergencies. Arrangements were made between the government and the London General Omni-bus Company before the War in which the Navy would take the buses they needed while funding the construction of new vehicles. While not common, these buses appear on both British and French postcards.
Early in the War appeals were made for donations of private motor cars for use in the conflict. Many of these vehicles had superior engines that allowed them to be used in many different ways. Machine guns were mounted on some so they could be used for reconnaissance work, while others were converted into armored cars. Many were just left as they were and used to transport officers. Even though their usefulness was limited by terrain, many were used in this fashion and appear on numerous postcards. German publishers are noted for producing these cards, perhaps because their officers were commonly viewed as an honored military class and these cars represented their appropriate status rather than luxury.
All sorts of wagons were used to haul supplies. Most armies had wagons specifically designed and manufactured for their use, though countless civilian wagons of many designs were also appropriated. Some of these had special features to enhance their use as ambulances or to haul ammunition, but most were made for general use. Drivers were not civilians but military men with their own designation. Eventually the position of driver in French and British armies would be taken over by colonial forces to free up regular soldiers for the infantry. Most wagons were to be drawn by three pairs of horses though teams of this size became harder to procure as the conflict dragged on. They were slowly replaced by light rail and trucks but the remained the primary method of logistical support throughout the War.
Since postcards usually focus in on individual vehicles, it is easy to forget how badly roads were clogged in trying to supply a massive army in the field. They were usually filled with a mishmash of all sorts of conveyance heading in two directions when many roads were barely wide enough to hold them. Traffic jams often slowed the flow of supplies to the extent that it hurt military operations. Offensives were often delayed and sometimes failed for the lack of adequate supplies, and even victories could not always be exploited.
If logistics are an often overlooked segment of war, then the back services that keep the trucks and wagons in repair are even thought of less. This makes it easy to forget the vast amount of men that were involved in repairing broken harnesses, shoeing horses, fixing wheels and more. Roads that were never good to begin with took a heavy toll on vehicles as they grew worn from excessive use. Back services were essential in keeping the life blood of the army flowing. Though not often found on postcards, this unglamorous aspect of the ware was captured far more often than might be expected. There is a strong possibility that these cards were primarily oriented toward the soldiers who served in the back services.
Transport was extremely important to the war effort and vehicles of all kinds were kept in the field as long as possible. Even so, many wagons were just abandoned due to severe damage. While there were large amounts of troops in the back services to keep vehicles in repair, they were not always handy where they broke down. In some cases enterprising drivers improvised, making makeshift repairs as best they could. While such repair work was never a large focus of postcards, the fact that such obscure depictions do exist demonstrates the vast array of subjects carried on cards. These images run a fine line between depicting ingenuity and desperation.
While it is easily to understand that artillery pieces needed to be pulled by teams of horses, tractors or trucks because of their great weight, the same consideration is rarely given to machine guns. This is in part due to the many lightweight guns that have since been developed but many early models were extremely heavy averaging about sixty pounds. This does not include its tripod and ammunition. Many guns did not even use tripods but were mounted to heavy iron carriages, and some of these were equipped with protective steel plating. If water cooled, the coolant would only last about two minutes before the gun needed to be refilled. This meant that large quantities of water needed to be transported with the gun if it was to remain functional in battle. While teams of men dragged all this equipment with them into combat, it was found that machine guns could be more efficiently deployed when horse drawn wagons were assigned to heavy weapon units.
Nearly every animal imaginable was put to use in some way during the Great War. These ranged from slugs to detect poison gas to elephants used in construction work. Most however were some sort of domesticated animal like dogs, goats or mules that were used for transporting supplies. Special vests, belts, and carts were designed for different animals depending upon their capacity for labor and where they would perform their tasks. Animals on the battlefield typically carried lighter loads so they could be more agile.
War Dogs had a huge presence in the military during the Great War, but few realize that Draught Dogs played an important role as carriers or haulers of heavy equipment and supplies. Their presence could free up the labor of men who could then be reassigned to combat roles. These dogs were often tethered to small wagons or sleds, and their size made them less conspicuous to the enemy if posted near the front lines.
As the War progressed, the number of horses that that were killed, wounded or just worn out became staggering. Great efforts were made to procure new animals but their numbers were limited. Trucks slowly took up some of the slack but they could not be used everywhere and they were never produced in enough numbers to completely make up for the shortfall. Prisoners of war who were already being assigned to laborious tasks were sometimes harnessed to wagons. Despite the real need for such labor, it was also an act of humiliation. While international conventions defined the way prisoners of war were to be treated, the lives of enemy soldiers were generally considered worthless beyond their capacity to work.
Soldiering is a spartan life where most comforts and distractions of home are discarded. The reasons for doing so stem from practicality rather than desire, and many soldiers desperately miss the pleasures that material objects can provide. Most infantrymen quickly learn to discard any excess weight they need to carry while campaigning though the temptation to freely pick up abandoned goods may be great. Old pushcarts or baby carriages were sometimes appropriated by individual soldiers to carry the excess booty they acquired while on the march, but this practice was rarely practical. Since such depictions had a tendency to imply that soldiers were more interested in looting than fighting, they rarely appeared on printed postcards unless portraying the enemy. Small wagons are more likely to appear on real photo postcards as an amusing subject meant for a more private audience.
Mountainous terrain was traditionally avoided when carrying out a military campaign; it may be reluctantly crossed but was never considered suitable for a battlefield. As armies grew larger longer front lines developed; and to protect one’s flank all types of terrain needed to be held. By World War One, campaigns were being launched in rugged mountains ranges where there was no transportation network to bring necessary supplies in on, or even the possibility of constructing them. Pack animals were employed whenever possible to carry supplies up steep mountain trails, but the burden often fell on the backs of ordinary soldiers.
Some mountain positions were so precariously placed that even bringing in supplies by foot were out of the question. The snow and ice common to these regions also closed paths that were painstakingly engineered. In some places an ingenious system of cables and pulleys were installed to haul both men and material over impassible terrain. Such scenes cable cars were often publicized because their unique character brought public attention, but they are fairly rare to find on postcards. The difficulty in making these strange scenes visually understandable may be part of the problem.
The number one enemy to transport by road was not enemy raids but mud. This affected motor vehicles and horse drawn conveyances alike. Mud not only slowed transport, it could bring it to a standstill. Horses that could not be extricated from their entombment were often shot, which was considered a great loss. Often the only solution to mud was waiting until the weather changed and the road dried. This could only be a matter of days but sometimes it took a whole season. Major military campaigns were rarely launched until the winter to spring rains had ended, though landscapes pot marked and churned up by years of bombardment became a year long problem. Troops would not only have a difficult time moving forward under muddy conditions, they could not exploit a breakthrough if supplies could not quickly follow. This age old nemesis limited the success on a number of initial victories over the course of the War.
If mud was the number one obstacle to transport, then snow was number two. While wagons did their best to plod onward through snow and ice it was not always possible. This was especially true in mountainous regions where roads were poorer and snow accumulations were more frequent and deeper. If possible horse drawn sleds replaced wagons to bring essential supplies up to the front. Many of these were not new conveyances but old supply wagons whose wheels were removed to accommodate runners. Smaller sleds pulled by dogs or men were also employed. Even though sleds were far superior to wagons in transversing snow, it was still often a grueling task. Instead of portraying these hardships, many photographers utilized the starkness of snowy landscapes to present more romanticized images.
The popularity of safety bicycles in the late 19th century led to the formation of many clubs that lobbied for improvements in roads. As more roads were paved and the pneumatic tire invented, this increased the size of the craze, which lead to further improvements and innovations. This did not go unnoticed by the military, and by the late 1880’s many nations began introducing bicycle infantry into the armies. This allowed troops to move faster over greater distances while carrying heavier loads, without the need for horses. The French invented the folding bicycle at this time so that soldiers could more easily carry their bikes on their backs when necessary.
By World War One all the belligerents had incorporated bicycle infantry into their military though they were organized differently in each nation. Usually of company size, bicycle units were primarily used for reconnaissance work. Some units however served as light infantry that would advance ahead of foot soldiers. This could allow them to quickly take ground but they needed regular infantry support to hold it. Postcards depicting bicycle units rarely depict them in combat situations. When they do they are often very posed with soldiers taking up positions without an enemy in sight.
While the role of messenger traditionally fell to those on horseback, this job increasingly fell to individual bicyclists who could free up the scarce supply of horses for the cavalry. Even though bicyclists employed as curriers largely worked behind friendly lines, they also operated in contested territory, which made them an important target. Sometimes these curriers are shown engaging in combat with enemy patrols to enhance their appeal on postcards.
To increase to speed of communication, and lessen the risk of being hit by enemy fire, the task of messengers increasingly fell to those riding motorbikes. Nearly as old as the safety bicycle, motorcycles went into mass production in the 1890’s. Manufactures greatly increased production during World War One where they were primarily employed by dispatch riders. Many motorcyclists enlisted for service with their own bikes. This could be a hazardous assignment as they often performed their duties while under fire in battle.
The first sidecar, a one wheeled single passenger carriage mounted to the right side of a bicycle, was developed by a French army officer in 1893. These were soon adapted to motorcycles, and put into commercial production in Great Britain by Watsonian in 1912. A year later the Flxible Sidecar Co. in Ohio became the world’s largest producer after improving on the design. The U.S. Army was the first to use sidecars attached to Harley-Davidson’s in the Mexican Punitive Expedition; and tens of thousands were purchased for use in Europe one America entered the Great War. Special motorcycle units were formed to help deploy machine guns and other essential supplies that needed to be moved up to the front in a hurry. Some sidecars were equipped to hold stretchers to quickly remove the wounded from the battlefield, while others had mounted machine guns for reconnaissance and patrol though the noise factor must have made them less than ideal for this work.
Although trains and trucks were used to transport soldiers, they were largely needed for shipping supplies, so troops were only conveyed this way when speed was an issue. Most troops got from one place to another by using the ancient and time tested method of walking. Many postcards from all nations depict long lines of their troops tramping down roads. The message behind these types of cards did not concern transport; it was meant to demonstrate how large and powerful the nation’s army was. The sight of these long infantry columns stretching our as far as the eye could see was enough to make anyone believe that victory was close at hand. Postcards depicting worn out infantrymen’s boots were also made but these a usually meant to be humorous.
All armies had pioneer or engineering units assigned to them that provide a number of services. While they were trained to build defensive works according to time tested designs, they often practiced constructing bridges across waterways. These temporary structures have a long history of being built with the aid of pontoons, small shallow draft boats over which a wooden deck was placed. Ever since the Napoleonic Wars, pioneers units carried all the parts for a prefabricated pontoon bridge with them by wagon or truck to make sure it could be built when and where it was needed. Retreating armies would usually destroy bridges behind them whenever they could to slow the enemy’s pursuit, so it was very important that a pursuing force had the means to follow. Pioneers not only practiced this craft to know how to assemble all the components of a pontoon bridge, they needed to be able to do this in a hurry. All this practice provided publishers with ample opportunities to gather such images for postcards. The construction of a bridge was also more visually animated than many other military activities, which increased its chances of being portrayed on cards.
Pontoon bridges had a number of problems; the weight they could carry was limited by the buoyancy of their floats, and their makeshift construction made them vulnerable to damage by rising water after storms, which stressed their bonds. They could not be built at all under the presence or even treat of enemy gunboats. Due to their more spontaneous and temporary nature, these bridges appear most often on real photo post cards.
Many times postcards will not display pioneers but they will show their handiwork, which could be quite elaborate. Prefabricated pontoons were not always available or there were not enough of them on hand to span a great waterway. In these cases pioneers had to be able to quickly improvise. They usually carried the tools to build almost anything, and a variety of structures were built to satisfy many problems. There were also many occasions when pontoons would not due. Many viaducts that carried trains over deep ravines or other depressions were also destroyed by retreating armies and had to be replaced. It was not possible to quickly work with their original materials, which were usually stone or steel, and so pioneers constructed log supports for the tracks on whatever foundation was left.
Since all able bodied men not involved in essential services were needed to serve at the battlefront, all nations experienced labor shortages. Allied countries sometimes made up for this by tapping into labor battalions composed of colonials or foreign conscripts. At other times prisoners of war and internees were pressed into this type of service. While they provided much unskilled labor, they were also used to work on large labor intensive projects like building more permanent bridges. The captions on some postcards make reference to the prisoners that built the pictured structure, but these were usually produced after the War.
When obstacles such as marshland severely hampered movement, an army would traditionally maneuver around them. Not all terrain was considered suitable for military action. By World War One the large armies involved in the fighting eliminated choice; and battle lines were sometimes drawn where both sides would have preferred not to be. Supplies however still had to be delivered, and it was pioneers that had to meet this challenge. This could require the construction of very unusual structures to meet specific needs. Many of these would have never been built in peacetime but now the driving force went beyond economics. The stranger the subject the more likely it would find its way onto a postcard.
Besides building bridges, pioneers were responsible for maintaining and even constructing roads. One of the most common forms these took were the corduroy road, a design that dated back to ancient times. The technology was basic; logs were cut and placed next to one another perpendicular to the road. They were usually set in muddy, swampy or sandy areas though an existing road in poor condition might also receive this treatment. They dramatically increased traction over difficult ground, but because there were always gaps between some logs they could be a hazard for both horses and men. These types of roads also took a great deal of timber to build, which was not always available. Under heavy traffic, corduroy roads wore out quickly.
The laying of corduroy roads was a tradition practice of pioneers, so it was not so unusual to find the subject covered on postcards. Newer practices such as building macadam roads with heavy equipment are much more difficult to find pictured on cards but they do exist. While this method of compacting a layer of light crushed stone over a load bearing base was practiced in road building since the 18th century, it had not changed much by the early 20th century. Pioneers often lacked the precise grades of crushed stone needed to build the perfect road and made do with what gravel they could find.
Even when stockpiles of ammunition were not being hoarded for an upcoming offensive, supplies still needed to be brought up to the front lines just to maintain an army. This meant that in winter when snowfalls prevented campaigning, roads still had to be kept clear of snow and ice as best as possible. In an era without snow plows this was more than a difficult task. It is hard to determine just how much road cleaning was actually done, but certain routes were much more essential than others. Pioneers were probably aided in this unskilled work by military Labor Corps and even forced civilian laborers.